New and Unusual: A Fresh Perspective on Partnerships for Sustainable Development from the UNDP Accelerator Labs

My First Orchard game from HABA

Partnerships for development

Partnership has been a watchword in sustainable development for decades — implied in the traditional term “international cooperation” and formalized more recently in SDG 17. When we envision partnerships, we typically think about governments working together across borders, interacting in fora like the UN and WTO, and potentially tapping into civil society for implementation, the wealth of the private sector, or expert knowledge at top universities. Development partnerships also imply transaction — namely the flow of resources from a wealthy core to a much poorer periphery.

The UNDP Accelerator Labs act as conveners, partnering with usual and unusual actors.

Unusual suspects

The UNDP Accelerator Labs established 531 partnerships in 2021. These partnerships range from helping the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) develop a technology and innovation framework for the Ministry of Research and Technological Innovation, to working with waste picker associations in Paraguay to generate ethnographic insights for Country Office programs.

This route runs local: grassroots innovators as partners

As the Labs convene unusual actors to expand their understanding of complex development problems, they are supporting UNDP to expand its network of partners and portfolio of potential solutions. According to an independent evaluation conducted in in 2021,

Pilot robot delivery to hospitals. Photo credit: UNDP Nepal

UNDP’s innovation train

Partnerships with small local actors — women’s market cooperatives, start-up drone companies, app developers — that disrupt “business as usual” and enhance the way UNDP does sustainable development. Surveys of UNDP leadership and interviews with a dozen Labs indicate that these new partnerships are enriching UNDP programming by bringing in new perspectives, encouraging uptake of a portfolio approach, and driving scale.

  • PORTFOLIOS: Working with a diversity of partners intuitively goes hand in hand with building portfolios — suites of multiple complementary, simultaneous interventions that together can shift complex systems. Thanks to the Labs’ engagements with new actors, UNDP has been able to make connections and form “systems-level” insights. For example, UNDP Pakistan and the Regional Innovation Center in Bangkok adopted a portfolio approach to the circular economy as a result of the Pakistan Lab’s convening of new partners, including Unilever, Nestle and start-ups, to tackle plastic waste.
  • SCALE: Half of the Labs in our first cohort brought in new funding and UNDP leadership tells us that bringing in new partners is the number one capability of the Labs that added value to UNDP. For example, the UNDP India Accelerator Lab partnered with the private sector to help transform the national spice sector — worth $3.6B in annual exports — through applying blockchain technology.
  • COVID-19 RESPONSE: Partnerships have enabled UNDP to respond more nimbly and effectively to emergent global phenomena, namely COVID-19. When the pandemic hit, the Labs’ new partnerships brought in digital delivery methods — which became increasingly critical as the pandemic exposed and exacerbated the “digital divide,” or the ways that connectivity drives inequality.
Informal vendors hold the key to understanding food security in Zimbabwe. Photo credit: UNDP Zimbabwe
  • DIGITAL: Digital partnerships have positioned the Labs as “feet on the ground” for implementing and fostering an enabling environment for UNDP’s major corporate priority, digitization. UNDP’s Chief Digital Office now relies on Lab staff as Digital Advocates in country offices as well as the source of scalable Digital X projects. For instance, the UNDP Lebanon Accelerator Lab enabled an agile response to the Beirut Blast of 2020, as three days after the explosion, a partnership with the Surge Data Hub allowed them to leverage a data pipeline from social media for emergency response, which continues to be used today. In another digital example, the Cote d’Ivoire Lab’s partnership with SKT AeroShutter, an AI-enabled drone operator, secured valuable geospatial data to fight deforestation. Reflecting on this digital partnership, the Lab said:
Fighting deforestation in Cote d’Ivoire with drone imagery. Photo credit: SKT AeroShutter

A return on learning partnerships

Emerging evidence from the Labs indicates a return on this investment in learning-based partnerships. Building on the work of their Lab, UNDP Colombia worked with a tech company to create augmented reality experiences that enabled the Country Office to assess socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 in remote areas. Intrigued by the approach, the local USAID mission decided to get involved and invested $9.8 million in UNDP Colombia to connect a value chain of stakeholders and mass produce essential protective gear locally. The Bogotá Environment Secretariat and mayor’s office leveraged USAID’s initial investment with an additional $14 million.

Emerging evidence of ROI with UNDP Colombia Life Helmets: $1 invested, $333 returned.

Partnerships, people and scale

The newness of actors, their resource-mobilization potential, and the direction of learning signal pathways to a new model for scaled investment in sustainable development. While the Labs position UNDP as a partner of choice and attract new funding, possible impacts reach far beyond UNDP, where distributed learning contributes to a self-sustaining ecosystem for the SDGs. The Accelerator Labs’ ease of engagement with the private sector also aligns with UNDP’s focus on enabling scale through private funding and public-private partnerships.

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UNDP Accelerator Labs

UNDP Accelerator Labs

Building the world’s largest learning network around development challenges. 91 Labs in 115 countries. http://acceleratorlabs.undp.org/